The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog


What Australia’s elections tell us about the Alternative Vote

The “decisive” voting system led to a hung parliament — does this tell us anything we didn’t already

This weekend's Australian polls resulted in a hung parliament as the two main parties each failed to win an outright majority. The horse-trading has begun.

So far, so similar to May 2010. But there is an important difference -- Australia's House of Representatives is voted in by the Alternative Vote (AV) system, which will be offered to the British public in a referendum next year.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) has released some thoughts on what this election showed us about AV.

It argues that "AV has delivered decisive results in each and every Australian seat". While two-thirds of British MPs hold a weak mandate in their constituency (with less than 50 per cent of voters in the area supporting them), Australian candidates must gain at least 50 per cent of the vote.

Highlighting the "decisiveness" of the system might seem odd, given that Australia is without a government at present, as coalition negotiations get under way. However, this is the country's first hung parliament in 70 years.

The ERS does a simple comparison over time. Australians hold more elections than the UK, due to shorter-term lengths. This means that, since 1940 -- the date of their last hung parliament -- they have had 27 federal elections. Of the past 28 British general elections, three have delivered a hung parliament (in 1929, February 1974 and 2010).

What this basic comparison boils down to is that there's no greater risk of hung parliaments under the AV system. The relative unusualness of the outcome in both countries indicates the role of global economic and political uncertainty.

However, there are some important differences between Australia's political situation and ours which make a like-for-like comparison reductive. Australia has a de facto two-party system between Labor and the coalition of the Liberal Party, the National Party and the County Liberal Party.

Comparing the frequency of hung parliaments in the past overlooks the role of the Liberal Democrats in the UK, who would be likely to benefit hugely from second-preference votes under AV. If we were to end up creating a three-party system, that could indeed make hung parliaments more likely.

All in all, this doesn't tell us a huge amount that we didn't already know. AV is not perfect; nor is it proportional. It can throw up the same quirks as first-past-the-post. But, in ensuring that each candidate at least has a strong mandate, it is an improvement on the status quo.

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